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For centuries Chinese styles have caught the imagination of the west. A civilization like that of the Chinese has never existed anywhere else: the mixture of philosophy, scholarship, ceremony and fine art. As far back as the 13th century the tales of Marco Polo intrigued the courts of Europe with romantic tales of a fantasy land called Cathay.
These tales fired the imagination of the Europeans and created a fascination for all things Chinese. Merchants returning with goods embellished their stock with tall tales fancy which kept the Europeans spellbound for a further two centuries.
The French court became devoted to the Chinese style, dubbing it Chinoiserie, which led to its popularity in other parts of Europe. During the 17th century Chinese style became assimilated into the prevailing taste for Baroque. While the Baroque incorporated Chinoiserie into its general fascination with the exotic, the craftsmen of the Rococo period, the predominant style of the first half of the 18th century found that Chinoiserie decoration captured the essence of European Rococo perfectly.
The Ming dynasty was characterized by seemingly austere shapes and undecorated surfaces. Every conceivable decorative detail was carefully considered before being incorporated. The elegance of the Ming style was achieved by sophistication in material construction and design motifs. Ming artisans reinterpreted the Chinese preference for living amidst elements from the natural world, articulating a system of balance with nature.
Following the collapse of the Ming dynasty in 1644, the understated tastes of the Han Chinese gave way to the ornate style of the Manchu conquerors. The Manchu’s introduced deep hues of red and yellow to the home interiors, with accents of gold, turquoise, black and light green. Red became emblematic of the power and vibrancy. The Manchu’s established the Qing dynasty which lasted until 1911.
The communist Chinese Liberation Army (PLA) confiscated millions of pieces of fine furniture from the wealthy homes during the revolution (1949) trying to make everyone equal.
They stored the furniture in big warehouses. Some of it was burned for warmth at community bonfires. The more precious furniture pieces were used for fires because the wood burned longer and gave off more heat.
It was only in the early 1980’s that the then President Deng of China opened negotiations for foreign trade and demands for Chinese furniture intensified. At first the pieces were sold quite cheaply because the supply was far greater than the demand, but that has changed now.
The Ming furniture has straight lines and is less decorative than the Qing. The Qing is more elaborate and painted. Sloping cabinets and the horse shoe arm chair is Ming style.
Furniture made from Elm; pine; Southern Elm. Also after 1567 they imported, from South East Asia, dense hardwoods such as Zitan and Huang-Huali.
The lacquer on Chinese furniture is a natural sap from the sumac tree. It grows in the southern and central parts of China. Its protective qualities preserve the wood over time. It is transparent.
• Ming style furniture – elegant simple lines.
• Qing style furniture extremely ornate and bold. Colour is a very important part of Chinese culture.